Justice Everywhere

a blog about justice in public affairs

Good books for a ‘first read’ in political philosophy / ethics

Recently, I was asked a question I have been asked on a few occasions: ‘what books should I recommend to a friend who has never read any political philosophy or ethics, but is interested in taking a look at the subject?’ I reply to this question with assorted recommendations, but what I recommend almost certainly varies depending on my mood, what I am currently researching/teaching, and, most significantly, how my memory is functioning in that moment. My recommendations are also limited to the list of books that I have read. To rectify these deficiencies, I write this post with two aims in mind: first, to identify some of the books I often recommend and garner suggestions from others about suitable books; and, second, thereby, to provide a list of texts to refer people when they ask the question above.

Before offering any suggestions, it may be useful to outline a few loose criteria that guide my recommendations:

1. I do tend to suggest books. It is no use suggesting articles that are behind paywalls. Meanwhile, although there are a number of good political theory blogs, some of which I recommend to people for certain purposes, their content is often too wide-ranging and varied for someone seeking a focused first read in the field.

2. I try to recommend books that can be found (at least second hand) at a reasonable price. This criterion leads me away from some of the anthologies that are available. But I think the context of the question asks for something with low barriers to entry.

3. The book must use language that is clear and simple and an engaging, accessible writing style.

4. I also try to tread a middle-ground between books that are under-involved and over-involved in philosophical discussion between theorists.

  • I try to avoid ‘under-involved’ books because I take the question to be requesting texts that are engaged in the discipline of political philosophy, a discipline that involves argumentative dialogues and disagreements between positions and theorists, not texts that aim to introduce non-philosophers to some philosophical ideas or a loosely philosophical treatment of certain topics. This criterion often leads me to avoid ‘Introductions to…’-type books.
  • I also try to avoid overly-involved texts that launch quickly into or are heavily focused on debates about finer details, such as the differences between various broadly similar accounts of distributive justice or understandings of important concepts, such as liberty. I think it is preferable to recommend texts that focus on familiar issues, such as contemporary political debates or everyday social problems. I do not interpret this criterion overly narrowly. I think G.A. Cohen’s Why not Socialism? meets it by providing an accessible discussion of a recognised political position, even if it does not centre on concrete policy debates of the kind most prominent in contemporary parliamentary politics. But it is meant to lean my suggestions towards texts that work via a focus on material that will be somehow familiar to the reader. I think it makes the political philosophy aspect easier to ‘latch on to’. Based on my own experience, I also think that reading deeply engaged discussions involving topics and methods with which one is unfamiliar (particularly in one’s ‘relaxation’ time) can be taxing and discouraging.

I do not mean these criteria to foreclose any discussion. I would be interested to hear if there are suggestions about variations or different criteria. I place them here merely to contextualise the way I interpret and answer the question.

Similarly, the list I offer below of recommendations that I think meet these criteria is not intended to be exhaustive, or even particularly settled. As I noted above, my interest here is to compile a list and I will be most grateful for discussion about my inclusions and additional recommendations.

The above said, here are some of my common suggestions:

  • Cohen, G.A., Why not Socialism? (Princeton University Press, 2009)
  • Dworkin, R., Is Democracy Possible Here? (Princeton University Press, 2005)
  • Glover, J., Causing Death and Saving Lives (Penguin, 1990)
  • Okin, S.M., Justice, Gender, and the Family (Basic Books, 1989)
  • Satz, D., Why some things should not be for sale: The moral limits of Markets (Oxford University Press, 2010)
  • Singer, P., Practical Ethics: 2nd Edition (Cambridge University Press, 1993)

Any and all thoughts would be welcome.

Andrew Walton is Lecturer in Political Philosophy in the Politics Department at Newcastle University. His research centres on questions of fairness in trade and justice in public policy.

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18 Comments

  1. Andres

    ‘Utilitarianism : for and against’ is useful, and as aged well.

  2. Anon

    For balance, ‘Why not capitalism?’ (Brennan) and ‘In Defense of Anarchism’ (Wolff)

    • Thanks for these ideas. I tend not to worry so much about balance when recommending a first read, focusing mostly on finding the texts that will give a good look into the subject. But the reminder about Wolff’s book is helpful. Have not read in a while, but I do remember it fitting well for a first read. Thanks.

  3. Give a try to Russ Shafer-Landau’s “The Fundamentals of Ethics”. I discovered it when teaching intro to ethics and enjoyed it immensely. Wouldn’t describe it as under-involved in your sense.

    And I’d say the same about Shelly Kagan’s Yale course on Death. The book may be equally good, and appropriate for people new to philosophy.

    • Thanks, Anca. I do not know the Shafer-Landau book and will give it a look. Agree with you on Kagan. It also has the benefit of being able to refer someone to the online lectures, which were great too.

  4. J.S. Mill?

    Or did you mean something more contemporary?

    • Thanks, Doug. I probably did have my head more on contemporary works, but Mill remains pretty relatable and a good read generally. Certainly a valuable recommendation in terms of giving a first read into some of the non-contemporary greats.

  5. Bruno Leipold

    Skinner, Liberty before Liberalism. Has the advantage of being very short, cheap and very clearly and enjoyably written. The extensive historical references might be a little daunting, but worth it to give a sense of how history can be used for political theory.

    • That’s a helpful thought, Bruno. I do not remember reading Liberty before Liberalism and will give it a look. The historical references is an interesting dimension because it has the benefit of connecting a reader to other thinkers.

  6. Brian Barry, Why Social Justice Matters.

    • Excellent suggestion, Siba. Brian Barry is always so easy to read and I remember Why Social Justice Matters being pretty well engaged with contemporary politics. Thanks for the reminder.

  7. Lisa

    What about the classics? Mill, On Liberty; Plato, Symposium; Arendt, The Human Conditions?

    • Thanks, Lisa. As I mention to Doug above, I think Mill is a good suggestion, particularly for introducing non-contemporary. Hannah Arendt would also fit this role nicely. I have often veered away from things further back because I fear them being harder to relate to familiar politics. On the other hand, Plato generally is reasonable to read and also has the benefit of connecting with one of the earliest in the tradition. Perhaps I might think The Republic would be my choice text, but I guess it would also depend what area of the discipline would be of interest.

  8. Jesper L Pedersen

    I’d strongly recommend Amartya Sen’s Developmen as Freedom as an easily read and very insightful book that links distributive justice directly with empirical issues.

    • Thanks, Jesper. Development as Freedom is an interesting one and a good idea for the reasons you mention. I often recommend it to people interested in development studies. Perhaps I have veered away from it in this context because it is less engaged in the philosophical dialogue I think is important in this question. On the other hand, it is makes a very good example for someone interested in exploring how applied philosophy can be done.

  9. Julia Hermann

    One of my recommendations would be “Political Philosophy: A Beginner’s Guide for Students and Politicians” by Adam Swift. From my experience, students love that book.

    • Thanks for the thought, Julia. I often recommend Swift to students looking at the subject for the first time. I have wondered whether leans towards being more of an overview than I think works for this question, but it has been a while since I read back through it and I should have another look.

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